Upstage right, the carcasses of three horses lie tangled, as if frozen in the throes of their own violent deaths. Behind this lifelike (deathlike?) sculpture by designer Berlinde De Bruyckere, a threadbare blanket forms a makeshift backcloth. Around the horses’ corpses stand the living figures of Belgian dance-theatre company les ballets C de la B – eight men and one woman, in this production of Alain Platel’s nicht schlafen. They are a motley bunch. Their clothing – bright sports tops, patterned shirts, shabby shorts and t-shirts – look cobbled together from cast-offs, and they themselves are a haphazard mix of ethnicities. One holds a tall staff, like a herdsman. The chime of cattlebells suffuses the stage with an eerily pastoral calm.
There’s a storytelling truism that says: start with a hook (something that captures attention), end with a punch (something that hits home, or reverberates afterwards), then in between you can afford to be more exploratory, because the audience is with you. Platel’s opening is a terrific hook, because it brims with questions. Where did those horses come from, and how did they die? Who are these people? What is their connection to the horses, to each other? Something dramatic, perhaps traumatic, seems already to have happened, but we don’t know what, or why. And we really want to find out.
Platel’s ending is good too, with the performers arrayed in a frieze that echoes the frozen contortions of the horses. But where have we been in between? Therein – despite the undoubted skill and conviction of every single performer – lies the big flaw with nicht schlafen. The opening couple of scenes are symptomatic. In the first, the performers fight scrappily, tearing at each other’s costumes until they expose more flesh than they cover. This takes an inordinately long time, but does seem to hint at something more profound. Culture as a covering for mortal flesh, shredded by conflict? Perhaps. The scene comes to an abrupt end as the sound of a Mahler symphony floods the stage. A surge of the sublime, offsetting their ridiculous infighting? Again: perhaps. The performers are certainly brought into a ragged unison that indicates their commonality as well as their individuality. But there’s no sense of real relation to the music: it’s all tics and flails, disconnected to Mahler’s dynamics and, indeed, mood.
Perhaps the disconnect is itself significant? Throughout, we’re aware of severances between foreground and background, or focus and periphery. While two men flop together like stranded fish, for example, others walk around disinterestedly, as if inhabiting a different world. That dissociation works on the level of staging: we sense that no action is complete, no scene is singular. But when it comes to Mahler – whose music recurs repeatedly and melodramatically throughout the piece – it feels more like neglect.
Platel has often shown a keen sense of dance and music as profoundly intertwined with human experience: witness the brass bands of En Avant, Marche!, the audiovisual subcultures of Coup Fatal, the vocal and physical polyphonies of C(h)oeurs. Mahler, however, comes from a symphonic tradition in which music seeks to establish its own realm, or to reach the sublime – to transcend the human. Here, his music appears as an external force, co-opted onto the stage but neither addressed nor engaged.
Two scenes do stand out. In one, an near-naked man becomes an abject beast, variously tamed, trained, tethered and set to work by the others. In another, the whole company mix the fleet, beaten steps of ballet with the jolts and splays of their own heterodox styles. Both scenes knit some themes together: our animal nature, the obdurateness of mortal flesh, the aspiration and the oppressiveness of ideals.
For the most part, nicht schlafen is test of attention. Whole acres of time are choreographically understructured and dramaturgically overstretched. The repeated use of ragged groups and haphazard outbursts brings a sameness to the scenes, whether they feature one man balanced atop another to form a giant beanpole, or torso-rolling African dance accompanied by tinkling ankle bells. In one section, the dancers infiltrate the auditorium, then simply return to the stage – a potentially interesting idea that remains just that: potentially interesting. The same could be said of the piece as whole. Which means that over the course of its 100 unbroken minutes, the mounting and eventually overriding sensation is of dead horses, being flogged.